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Azeris Ready for Democracy, Expert Says

(Washington, DC --October 17, 2002) Speaking to a RFE/RL audience recently, an expert on Azerbaijan urged the Azeri government to allow "free and fair elections in 2003" because the "people of Azerbaijan are ready for democracy."

Dr. Jayhun Mollazade, a former Azeri diplomat who is now a Senior Associate with Cambridge Energy Research Associates and serves as the president of the United States-Azerbaijan Council, said that the government of Azerbaijan over the last decade has been able to consolidate the country's sovereignty--"independence is now irreversible"--but the development of civil society and democracy has lagged without a free press and electronic media. Azerbaijan, a member of the Council of Europe, has pledged to reform its electoral system and allow independent media. Mollazade said this should finally be done, in advance of national elections in 2003.

The key success of Azerbaijan over the last decade, Mollazade said, was the robust development of its oil sector--supported by more than 21 oil production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies and a multiple pipeline policy to make the region less dependent on Russian distribution networks. Ground was broken for one of these pipelines--from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port city of Ceyhan via the Georgian capital of Tbilisi--on September 18, 2002, and should be completed in 2004. A natural gas line would follow to Erzurum, Turkey by 2006.

How the profits generated from oil and gas production are used will determine Azerbaijan's future, Mollazade said. With a 50 percent unemployment rate, the economy needs to be diversified, possibly starting with the agricultural sector that collapsed with the Soviet Union, according to Mollazade.

Azerbaijan's foreign policy is "strongly tied to the West," Mollazade said, and after the September 11 attacks, the United States should be interested in seeing a "fully democratic, oil-rich Caucasus, which could serve as a good model for Central Asia and the Middle East." Yet, the failure of the Minsk Group to achieve a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh situation and the resettlement of 800,000 Azeri refugees who still live in tent cities remain major obstacles to the economic and political development of Azerbaijan.